A former ‘insane asylum’ near Sedro-Woolley is stepping out of the shadows with a new tenant.
LIKE ANCIENT DNA encased in amber, the stately tile-roofed buildings, tree-lined lanes and other time-capsule remnants of what once was Northern State Hospital stand as ghostly reminders of troubled lives long since forgotten.
Tens of thousands of them, likely. Few patients came by choice; they were dropped at the secluded, rural enclave at the behest of a family member, police department or doctor who sought a court order for involuntary confinement. The institution that for many would be a final home was an outwardly placid, 1,100-acre rural refuge straddling boisterous Hansen Creek, a tributary of the lower Skagit River in the foothills of the North Cascades.
From 1912 to 1973, what once was known as the Northern State Asylum welcomed its share of the state’s “insane.”
The word was defined broadly. Patients at Northern State, which housed as many as 2,700 souls in the early 1950s, ranged from the violent mentally ill (a small minority) to the mildly disturbed — and beyond, to epileptics, alcoholics, drug addicts or mere social nonconformists. Many were immigrants.
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Treatments were consistent with the times, and many are now considered barbaric. Doctors and nurses administered regular electric-shock treatments to many patients, including women incarcerated for “menopausal depression.” Heavy sedation, sometimes with experimental drugs, was common. “Insulin coma therapy” was employed, and some patients, beginning in the 1940s, received a new wonder cure, the transorbital lobotomy.
Yet over the course of its institutional life, Northern State established a reputation as one of the country’s “good” mental institutions — one operated with more compassion and care, it was argued, than the state’s other two regional facilities. Even though Northern State carried the stigma long associated with mental illness — it was commonly known locally as the “Bug House” — the institution was a longstanding source of both income and pride to its neighbors in bucolic Sedro-Woolley.
Although some original buildings are gone, the campus, largely locked from public view for more than a century, is a magnificent specimen of early 20th-century institutional design, with clusters of buildings in Spanish Colonial Revival style set on parklike grounds. The layout was lovingly drawn by famed designer John Charles Olmsted, whose father, Frederick, had died in a similar institution — ironically, of his own design — near Boston in 1895.
Thus, from its conception, the campus, perched above wetlands on a knoll with expansive views of snow-capped Cascade peaks, was designed to invoke a soothing sense of separation and tranquillity that would serve as part of Northern State’s treatment scheme.
It apparently worked, at least for patients who won their release. But many others, according to anecdotal accounts from former staff members, went in and never came out.
When the facility was closed, to much uproar along the Skagit, by Gov. Dan Evans in 1973, its hospital and office buildings were raided for supplies by Western State Hospital in Steilacoom. All but a skeleton crew of a staff of nearly 500 lost their jobs. Remaining patients were transferred to Steilacoom or released — some, reputedly, from buses, straight onto the streets of downtown Seattle.
Northern State, an isolated community within another somewhat-isolated community, fell silent. Dozens of buildings on the main campus were shuttered; an extensive dairy farm that operated on the premises as part of a therapeutic work program closed, its concrete barns left to crumble in the often-stiff wind.
IN THE FOUR decades since, Northern State, which later became home to a Job Corps program and a small addiction-treatment facility (both of which remain, for now), has languished. Only a short distance off Highway 20, the campus is out of sight of the millions of tourists who drive by it every year on the North Cascades Scenic Byway. Few people outside Sedro-Woolley even know it’s there.
The semi-mothballed remains became a curiosity known mostly to amateur ghost hunters, a couple horror-film producers, and chroniclers of ghost towns and forgotten history. But local townspeople have never lost sight of Northern State’s important history — nor its imagined potential.
Countless proposals to bring Northern State back to life have risen and perished: golf course. Hotel/country club. Conference center. High school. Branch campus. Car-racing track. County fairgrounds. Studies were ordered; economic analyses conducted. Nothing penciled out. Paint continued to peel.
The path that would lead to a breakthrough presented itself around 2009. Local resident Mary McGoffin was compiling historical accounts for a self-published book, “Under the Red Roof: One Hundred Years at Northern State Hospital,” which documented the stories of the rapidly disappearing generation of former employees. While successfully campaigning to list the site on the National Register of Historic Places (it was added in 2010), she became convinced that saving the unique relic would require private investment.
She happened to know someone looking to make one. McGoffin is a member of the Janicki clan, valley homesteaders whose third generation morphed the family logging company into a leading carbon-fiber innovator, Janicki Industries, and other local enterprises. Her brother, engineering guru Peter Janicki, was seeking a home for his latest brainchild, Janicki Bioenergy.
The company is developing a potentially revolutionary machine: the “OmniProcessor,” a contraption that turns human waste into both potable drinking water and electrical power. Its potential as a major humanitarian tool in developing nations has drawn the interest, and investment, of people like philanthropist Bill Gates.
Peter Janicki toured the historic campus, a short distance from Janicki’s plant, and wondered: Why not use the engine of a business devoted to a new humanitarian mission to save a place that had endeavored to achieve an old one? Early this year, a deal was made, in what partners are calling a triple win for Skagit County.
Washington state, which already had turned roughly 700 acres of Northern State’s farmlands over to Skagit County for habitat improvement and recreational use, in January agreed to sell the remaining 240 acres of the main campus, in stages, to the Port of Skagit County for $5 million. The City of Sedro-Woolley annexed the grounds to facilitate development. And the Port will welcome, as anchor tenant to a new “clean technology campus,” Janicki Bioengineering, which is expected to renovate and reuse some of Northern State’s most historically significant features.
Janicki declined to comment on its plans. But all partners in the deal are calling it a model of intergovernment collaboration. The Port predicts the rebranded SWIFT Center will provide 600 to 1,000 jobs over the next two decades. And perhaps of more interest to the public, it should bring historic Northern State — finally — out of the shadows and into full view.
“The possibilities,” says Port of Skagit spokesman Andrew Entriken, “are pretty much endless here.”
POKING AROUND in the impressive and somewhat haunting remains of the campus today, it’s easy to see how spectacular — and how challenging — this repurposing might be.
The main hospital building is a prime example. This massive, two-story complex — the largest single remnant of some 45 buildings at the time of Northern State’s closing — is an overwhelming maze of passageways and disconcertingly long corridors.
The place feels eerie — an effect exaggerated by the building’s abandoned condition. Like most of the facilities here, it is structurally sound — built to last a century, and heading for another. But despite valiant efforts by about 10 current state caretakers, decades of abandonment have taken a toll.
The distinctive red-tile roofs, now algae-covered, leak in places. Cracked single-pane windows have become paths for invading vines. Even the paint on the walls, after several decades of noble adhesion, has cracked into potato-chip-sized flakes, forming fascinating displays of the art of decay across the building’s interior.
Some visitors who tour the dark, dank building find it unsettling — especially when they happen upon stark remnants of the former activity here, such as the second-floor surgical ward. Here, an operating space beneath a massive surgical floodlight is separated by thick glass from a small viewing area for spectators.
It is impossible not to imagine how many sets of terrified eyes might have blinked up into that bright orb. A large, steel-grated floor drain beneath the space where a gurney would have held a patient completes a macabre image.
Most of the campus, however, is decidedly unspooky. The original steam power plant still hums, now fired by natural gas instead of coal. Every spring, its nonfunctioning smokestack welcomes back swirling flocks of agile Vaux’s Swifts. A network of tunnels carries pipes and power lines — and reportedly once served as a clandestine meetup spot for staffers on the largely gender-segregated campus — beneath the complex.
Some of the old buildings are spectacular: The cavernous 1916 Assembly Hall, naturally lit by milk-shaded stained-glass windows, sports original fir flooring and a massive old-growth-timber ceiling structure. Nearby Trevennen Hall, built in 1938, is an abandoned nurses’ residence with an impressive central tower graced by a sweeping spiral staircase and grand, intricately formed concrete entryway. It is easy to envision these buildings morphing into historical showpieces.
Leading a campus tour, longtime maintenance supervisor Mike Caling can’t hide a sense of pride over what his crew has been able to keep standing over the years. The deal to transfer the land might cost them their jobs. But Caling sees the bigger picture.
If that happens, he says, “It’s a lot better than watching this place just spiral down.”
LESS APPARENT in Northern State’s present state is a glimpse into what life must have been like here. Despite the ignoble treatment history, former employees recall a strong sense of community among staff, but shared even by less-troubled patients.
Occupational therapy was Northern State’s mantra, and many patients worked on the dairy farm. An offshoot canning operation produced large quantities of canned meat, applesauce and other goods. Manure spread from the dairy on local fields produced spectacular spring wildflower displays. Herds of deer and elk strolled around the campus, as they do today. Self-contained Northern State had its own weekly newspaper, and even a competitive baseball team.
But it also produced another unfortunate legacy, the attempted solution for which lingers like a scar on the hospital’s legacy.
Thousands of people died while confined here. Unless a family member claimed the body, its disposal was up to the state. Most patients known to be of Protestant faith were cremated, in an on-campus crematorium that operated from the 1920s until the early 1950s, when a funeral home took over burials. Years after the furnace was shut down, hundreds of cremated remains were found stored in tin food cans bearing patient numbers. They eventually were laid to rest in a mass grave at a Mount Vernon cemetery.
Earlier patients were buried in Northern State’s own cemetery, a 1.5-acre plot on the far east side of the grounds. The grassy field is notoriously swampy and covered by a thick thatch. Burial in the soupy soil was difficult — stones reportedly were placed in some makeshift coffins to keep them from floating up before they could be covered.
On the surface, the opposite problem: The “grave markers” — brick-sized blocks — repeatedly have sunken into the thatch, literally disappearing.
From its inception until it “closed” in the 1950s, the cemetery was neglected. Cattle were known to have grazed on it. A flash flood caused substantial erosion. After Northern State was shuttered, many community members and Northern State caretakers volunteered their time to locate the sinking grave markers with steel probes, dig them up and reseat them.
Despite these efforts, the grave markers in a way represent a final indignity to those who lived out their lives here in shameful anonymity. The handful of gravestones still visible contain only a three-digit number and a set of initials: “305 P.F.” “550 E.B.” “638 M.J.” “707 F.L.” On and on.
It is all that’s left to remind the world they ever existed.
Even in death, the stigma of mental illness haunts these departed souls. The lack of names is a clumsy result of privacy laws that protected family surnames from being associated with an asylum. Once inside Northern State, people whose bodies were not claimed were effectively wiped from history, leaving dead branches on entire forests of family trees.
THE BEST GUESS is that some 1,500 former patients were buried at the cemetery between 1913 and 1952 — about 700 of them in makeshift coffins with the semi-anonymous grave markers, the rest probably cremated and buried in groups. Only one grave, along the rear boundary, is marked by a headstone bearing a name.
“It’s so, so sad,” says Brenda Kinzer, a local native and Sedro-Woolley City Council member who also heads a new community group working to restore the cemetery. She remembers being shocked at the paltry headstones when she first saw them as a child.
The effort got a boost in 2004, when a state law preventing disclosure of the names of deceased former mental patients was changed, thanks to lobbying by a similar cemetery group at Western State Hospital, Kinzer says.
Kinzer and her team have inherited an old plot map, with sketchy names and numbers of the full grave sites. (A companion map locating cremated remains has been lost.) The new Northern State Preservation Group hopes one day to finally “name names” of Northern State’s dead, giving every person a marker with a name and dates of birth and death.
And in the process: a modicum of dignity — something the state of Washington, as guardians of the cemetery’s residents, never really afforded.
The state supports the project, Kinzer says. But no money to correct the shameful neglect of the cemetery has been forthcoming. Her group of about two dozen has filed for nonprofit status, and will seek donations.
Like many other locals, Kinzer is thrilled with the deal to turn Northern State into a technology and engineering campus. The fact that the Janicki family is leading the charge is a major bonus.
“There’s a lot of trust there,” she says, that they will do the right thing, and the community is excited to have the Janickis as stewards. Her only concern, as plans are drawn, is that the historic nature of Northern State be preserved. And although the cemetery is not officially connected to the separate grounds of the new campus, it remains a critical part of the institution’s history — the last human link to the reason the campus existed in the first place.
“We want to give those people a name and connect them to their families,” Kinzer says. “They deserve that.”
Righting that wrong, it seems, might be a good way to finally settle the affairs of Northern State’s past before its future is launched: a clean slate to build upon.
Because today, the only clear sign that graves lie beneath the soggy grass of Northern State Cemetery is a small engraved plaque, installed by Sedro-Woolley High School students as part of a senior class project. It notes the many dead laid here, for more than a half-century, and asks, humbly, for something the occupants surely are owed: “May they rest in peace with dignity.”